Today marks national Religious Freedom Day, enacted in 1993 by then-President George H.W. Bush to address the importance of both freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.
Historically, the day marks the anniversary of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, passed Jan. 16, 1786.
"Almighty God hath created the mind free," reads the statute, rooted in former President Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy of religious freedom and separation of church and state.
The importance of freedom of religion and speech were then drafted into the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment, which went into effect in 1791.
George H.W. Bush, William Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all annually addressed the importance of Religious Freedom Day.
"As our Nation has grown, so too has its diversity of faiths, cultures, and traditions; today, individuals of rich and varied beliefs call America home and seek to follow their consciences in peace," said President Barack Obama in his Religious Freedom Day address, issued Jan. 13.
"Our long history of religious tolerance and pluralism has strengthened our country, helped create a vibrant civil society, and remained true to the principles enshrined in our founding documents," added President Obama.
As Obama shares in his address, the United States advocates the freedom to express religion in all countries, especially those with restrictive governments.
Many of the world’s citizens are not as fortunate as those in the democratic United States. Christians practicing in Iran, China, North Korea, and Afghanistan experience religious persecution on a daily basis.
The First Freedom Center of Richmond, Va., commemorates Religious Freedom Day with its annual First Freedom Awards Banquet, held this year on Thursday, Jan. 12.
The award event notices those in the international community who strive to ensure religious freedom for all. The Rev. Canon Andrew White of St. George's Church in Baghdad, Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress, Professor Robert O’Neil of the University of Virginia, and the Right Rev. Peter James Lee, former Episcopal bishop of Virginia, were all rewarded for their fight for religious freedom.
Randolph Bell, retired American ambassador and president of the First Freedom Center, told The Christian Post that religious freedom is “the first freedom because without it so many other basic human rights do not exist.”
“We hope that this [administration], like all of its predecessors, both Democratic and Republican, will continue to work hard to keep religious freedom in the forefront of American foreign policy,” Bell added.
The First Freedom Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
Religious Freedom Day falls on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, meant to commemorate the efforts of the African-American activist and Baptist minister who was a prominent leader in the nation's civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
“It’s all about the fundamental human rights of people […] people are individuals but they are also groups,” Bell told CP, affirming the connection between the ideals of the civil rights movement and the ideals of religious freedom.
“You want to secure the rights of minorities and majorities,” Bell added.
According to the Pew Research Center, 2.2 billion people, nearly one-third of the world's 6.9 billion population, live in countries where either government restrictions or social hostility regarding religion rose substantially from mid-2006 to mid-2009.